The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History

Aug 5, 2015
Originally published on August 5, 2015 12:47 pm

The College Board has just released the latest curriculum framework for its Advanced Placement U.S. history course, and it appears to have satisfied many of the old framework's critics.

The rewrite comes after anger over its 2014 framework sent the College Board, which administers the AP exam, back to the drawing board.

It agreed to revise in an attempt to quell what had become a national controversy over how to teach issues like imperialism, slavery, racism and American identity.

A Little History ...

America doesn't have a national history curriculum, but the AP U.S. history course comes close. Last year, nearly half a million high school students sat for the AP exam, with top scorers earning many millions of dollars worth of college credit.

The controversial 2014 framework — meant to help teachers prepare students for a new AP exam — was the first update since 2006, and it signaled a big shift away from important names and events toward interpretation and comprehension: debating ideas instead of regurgitating facts.

But critics argued that the new framework presented a view of the country's history that was too negative and too political.

A retired AP U.S. history teacher named Larry Krieger, who now runs a test prep and tutoring company, was among the first to raise the alarm about the curriculum guide. He connected to a network of education activists who had already mobilized against issues like the Common Core and standardized testing.

Eventually, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution that called the framework "radically revisionist." And policymakers in several states — including Oklahoma, Georgia, Colorado and Texas — introduced proposals hoping to force a revision.

Specific objections ranged from the framework stating that the nation's founders believed in "white superiority" and that white Southerners had "pride in the institution of slavery" to a line calling former President Ronald Reagan "bellicose."

What happened next took some critics, including independent historian Jeremy Stern, by surprise. The College Board listened. It reached out and eventually hired Stern as a consultant on a revision. "It's very unusual for any educational organization to respond to serious criticism by actually listening to it," he says. "The usual response is to raise the drawbridge."

The new 2015 framework has been rewritten to create what the College Board called in a statement "a clearer and more balanced approach."

For example, in the 2014 version, Europeans "helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare." Now it says simply that the Europeans' introduction of guns and alcohol "stimulated changes" in native communities.

In the section on World War II, students are told that Americans saw the war as a fight for freedom and against fascism; last year's version talked about Japanese internment camps and the atomic bomb — with no mention of the Holocaust.

And Reagan? He's no longer "bellicose" toward the Soviet Union but simply gives "speeches" and engages in "a buildup of nuclear and conventional weapons."

Are Critics Happy?

Some of them, yes. Rick Hess, a conservative education expert at the American Enterprise Institute and a former high school social studies teacher, didn't think much of the 2014 version, but he published a piece in the National Review saying the new framework is "not just better, it's flat-out good."

"I thought what came out felt much more robust, much more historically accurate," he tells NPR.

On the other hand, now some liberals and progressives say they preferred the more critical perspective of last year's version. Like Alexandros Orphanides, a high school history teacher in New York City, who writes about education.

"If you are critical of things like income inequality or institutionalized racism, then you won't have the lens to evaluate the present — if you've been indoctrinated in a patriotic, jingoistic, nationalistic view of history," he says.

So what happens now?

In the education policy world, Hess sees a happy ending. Like Stern, he gives the College Board credit for listening to its critics. "Of all the culture wars we've been engaged in, this is the happier outcome," Hess says.

Of course, in a broader sense, the culture wars are very much alive. The debates in the news today — over whether to take down the Confederate flag or sign a nuclear deal with Iran — are forcing Americans to reckon with some very big, very old ideas about American exceptionalism, freedom, military power and racism. And for many young people, those debates start in history class.

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Students are returning to high school in a few weeks and a half-million of them will be taking Advanced Placement U.S. history. That hugely popular course has also become hugely controversial. Last year, the College Board introduced a rewrite, which was greeted by such a roar of criticism that it has been reworked again. Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team joins me to talk about this.

Anya, good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So can you remind us just what caused all of the criticism with the first rewrite in the first place?

KAMENETZ: Sure. So in 2014, the College Board released a new framework, and this is a set of guidelines for teachers who want to prepare their students for the AP exam. And this is the first time they had updated it since 2006, and there were a lot of changes in the exam that were meant to promote sort of more discussion and debate. But what ended up happening was that many, many people greeted it - they said this is very bias, and this is portraying a lot of negative ideas about America, American democracy, American freedom. And it really became a kind of cause celebre across the entire country.

GREENE: And, I mean, it became political, right? I mean, the Republican National Committee gets involved. How does this - I mean, this is history class. How does it get so politicized?

KAMENETZ: That's a really good question. You know, I think if you look carefully right now, there's really a network of education activists, many of whom had been mobilized around the Common Core and standardized testing. And initially, the alarm was raised by a former AP U.S. history teacher and a test prep company owner named Larry Krieger, and he got involved with people from the National Review and Common Core activists. And before you know it, Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, Colorado policymakers are debating this. And as you said, the Republican National Committee called it, a radically revisionist curriculum.

GREENE: OK, so what exactly were some of the objections people had?

KAMENETZ: Well, overall, the objection was that the curriculum portrayed the United States in a very negative light, as it never kind of passed up an opportunity to highlight the racism of white Americans overtime. In particular, the course framework said that the founders believed in white superiority. It said that white Southerners had pride in the institution of slavery and also in foreign policy issues, calling former President Ronald Reagan bellicose, for example.

GREENE: So, I mean, are the complaints basically that the nuance is missing when this course is taught, that, I mean, saying that white Southerners took pride in slavery, you know, might be true in some cases, but it doesn't capture the complete story?

KAMENETZ: Well, the framework was not meant to be comprehensive. But I think in shifting perhaps to a more debate-oriented or critical perspective from, you know, the old version, which is more about a list of facts, I think there was a concern that what was implemented was really a point of view that was really about America as, you know, a problematic place and a place that is not special and not exceptional and not different from other countries. And I think that's what - that really got a lot of people dandered up, especially on the conservative side.

GREENE: So is - I mean, the College Board is now rewriting things again. I mean, did they take some of this feedback to heart and make some of the changes that people were calling for?

KAMENETZ: Well, that's where this really gets interesting, David, because the version that was released last week was actually hailed by many of its critics. And in fact, the College Board seems to have listened to many of its critics and even hired some of them to work on the revision. So the new version, for example, where it said before that Europeans, quote, "helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare," now it says more simply in a more neutral balanced way that the introduction of guns and alcohol, quote, "stimulated changes in native communities." And another example of this, you know, increased balance - in the section on World War II, it says, you know, make sure that the students learn that Americans saw the war as a fight, you know, for freedom against fascism, whereas last year's version actually talked about Japanese internment camps and the atomic bomb and women's rights but didn't even mention the Holocaust or Nazi death camps at all.

GREENE: All right. Anya Kamenetz is part of NPR's Ed team. Anya, thanks a lot.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.